Smith warns colleagues to stop rocking the boat

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Indy Politics
JOHN SMITH last night delivered his first warning to the Shadow Cabinet to stop rocking the boat in public and to consult before making controversial statements.

In what was described as a friendly warning rather than a reading of the riot act, Mr Smith emphasised the collegiate approach he has taken as leader but said he had received letters from ordinary party members complaining about the damage done to the party by public disagreements among leading figures.

No names were mentioned - and the issue of Jack Straw's call for Labour to lead the debate about the future role of the monarchy was not raised - although Mr Smith is understood to be irritated because he knew nothing of that before it became public.

The Labour leader's remarks were seen by some to be as much a rebuke to John Prescott, the transport spokesman, for his recent assaults over 'Clintonisation' of the party and the public exchanges that has produced.

Although some complain Labour has had too little public debate, Mr Smith has to date put fewer restraints on Shadow Cabinet members' freedom to speak individually than the discipline enforced, much nearer an election, in Neil Kinnock's day.

The Labour leader also plans to seize the initiative after criticism that he has been too laid-back by using his speech to Labour's local government conference in February to set out the agenda for the party this year. That will be followed by the keynote speech on Britain's 'crumbling constitution' Mr Smith has been planning since the autumn.

Key issues Labour has to settle this year include its stance on electoral reform. Further evidence of its gradual shift towards a change in the voting system came yesterday as Lord Underhill, a member of the party's Plant committee on electoral systems, signalled his support for proportional representation during a Lords debate.

Lord Plant, who chairs the working party due to report in April, emphasised to peers that the final choice was between first past the post, an 'alternative vote' system, and a 'mixed member' system similar to New Zealand's.

He is understood to favour the third, while reaffirming his opposition to the single transferable vote (STV), the system the Liberal Democrats would most like to see.

Lord Underhill said the time had come to 'seriously consider whether we should change first past the post'. He added: 'I think the public wants to change. It is now a question of sitting down and working out the detail.'

(Photograph omitted)